After shoehorning himself into the space along the curb, Graham tried deciphering the sign above his car to determine his risk of being towed. Which Tuesday of the month was it? The pavement was rapidly burning a hole in his shoes, so he hoped for the best and set off in search of the office. He wasn't far from Faneuil Hall, and he heard the echoes of a street performer barking through a fuzzed-out amplifier. He crossed behind the Customs House and found the address - a dingy five story building crammed in among the banking towers like a dirty paperback on a shelf full of classics.
He opened the door, hoping for a gust of air conditioning, but was instead rewarded with a musty lobby that seemed sliced out of time. A directory of plastic letters pressed into faded brown felt listed the building's occupants. Lawyers, dentists, and oculists. Graham blinked. He hadn't heard of an oculist since Gatsby. Some of the directory's letters had fallen to an alphabet soup jumble at the bottom of the case, leaving darkened silhouettes in the fabric.
Well, this was the place Kurt had recommended. If anyone could get the grasping hands of the IRS from up Graham's arse, supposedly this guy could.
Three hours later, Graham winced his way down three flights of steps. It had been more painful than he'd expected. He glanced again at the directory on his way out. An honest mistake; there's not that many letters difference between Tax Attorney and Taxidermy.
At least the guy had thrown in a pretty nice Elk's head once they realized the error.
Opening: Benwah.....Continuation: Anonymous
Graham shuddered in the heat as he flashed to photos of Japanese civilians who had been reduced to shadows on concrete, without even a jumble to bury in the bottom of the case. He chuckled. Such a vain hope. He'd been one of the observers at Nagasaki, and the guilt that had been seared into his heart would never have led him to a comfortable and modern building.
He took the stairs.
Graham tutted at the "Out of Service" sign on the elevator and set off up the stairs. There were four suites on the sixth floor and the one he wanted was to his left. He paused to read the sign stenciled on the door -- Eliat Tsun - Dental Surgeon. This was it. A paper taped below the window was further confirmation: 50% Off, First Tuesday Every Month. This was the place.
Free parking off street; thrift store shoes; half-price bridgework. When he was done here he planned to go check the dumpster out back, pick up something nice for the wife. Who said you couldn't live cheaply in Boston?
Graham spun on his heels at the sudden voice. "Graham Plu--"
"You're late." Graham glanced at his watch. "Come with me." The man was a good four inches shorter than Graham, but something said don't argue with him.
Inside the elevator, Graham expectd the man to reach for one of the thick blank buttons with the faded floor numbers. Instead, he took out a key. Graham almost threw up as the elevator dropped.
When the doors finally opened, Graham winced at the harsh light that prickled his retinas. They emerged into a huge chamber filled with bustling people like some futuristic train station.
"You're a hard man to track down."
Graham shrugged. "I've been trying to get out of the business."
"I hear you're good. We need someone good. Follow me."
They wound through brightly lit corridors filled, dodging electric carts driven by serious looking suits.
"You'll be working in here." The man pushed open a door. The room was dim compared to the glare outside, and the stench hit like a bare fist.
Graham shook his head and stepped inside. His shoes squelched in the vile brown water on the floor. Well, he supposed, someone has to take care of this shit.
The writing is fine, but you might consider opening it:
It was a dingy five-story building crammed in among the banking towers like a dirty paperback on a shelf full of classics. Graham opened the door...
I'm assuming the street performer and the parking sign are of no importance to the reader. If the location is important, you can say "among the banking towers near Faneuil Hall," but maybe he can just pass Faneuil Hall or the Customs House when he leaves. Getting him to his destination a full paragraph sooner will help us get interested in the story. Minor details can come after we're hooked.
A story in Boston.
EE's got the best advice. ditch the first paragraph and focus on Graham and his adventures in the building.
I once read storyline criticism by J Michael Straczynski who wrote Babylon Five for a number of years.
He criticized the style of story telling where the writer or (in TV's case, the director) created a scene where the characters talk about meeting an important person, then the next scene they meet the important person, then in the third scene they talk about the meeting that they just had with the important person.
My point is that this feels like that. Graham parks the car on a hot and crowded street. Graham finds the building (hot, sweaty and stinky). Graham is awed by the title of oculist. sigh... It's time to get to business.
Something like this:
Graham found the office as hot and sweaty as the rest of the building. dusty, cobweb-ridden walls, threadbare carpeting and dingy, half-watt light bulbs completed the picture of (who or what's office and why). Boris Spassky sat in a vinyl chair, a pair of horn-rimmed glasses atop two sweaty armpits.
That continuation was a visual hoot. Mincing. Elk Head. Ha!
I like your opening, but I like it in individual pieces rather than in a whole.
liked these phrases a lot -
After shoehorning himself into the space along the curb (good opening word picture)
the echoes of a street performer barking through a fuzzed-out amplifier great audio there
a musty lobby that seemed sliced out of time. good, evocative scent pic there
But I think it would work really well to structure your opening paragraph in a slightly different way -- and make it two:
After shoehorning himself into the space along the curb, Graham tried deciphering the sign above his car to determine his risk of being towed. Which Tuesday of the month was it? The pavement was rapidly burning a hole in his shoes, so he hoped for the best and set off in search of the office. He wasn't far from Faneuil Hall, and he heard the echoes of a street performer barking through a fuzzed-out amplifier. He crossed behind the Customs House and found the address - a dingy five story building crammed in among the banking towers like a dirty paperback on a shelf full of classics....
maybe like this:
After shoehorning himself into the space along the curb, Graham tried deciphering the sign above his car to determine his risk of being towed. Which Tuesday of the month was it?
The pavement was too hot to wait around reading signs, so Graham hoped for the best and set off in search of the office. He wasn't far from Faneuil Hall. He heard the echoes of a street performer barking through a fuzzed-out amplifier. He crossed behind the Customs House and found the address - a dingy five story building crammed in among the banking towers like a dirty paperback on a shelf full of classics.
Not sure I need a hook in the traditional sense - I like the prose, but I just think it needs a little 'something' to make it resonate a bit more, maybe?
The first para doesn't really grab me, and for some reason I thought he was going to his own office (use of 'the office' perhaps?), so I thought it was odd that he was 'in search'. That may just be me being very thick.
The second para was much more interesting. It's immediately intriguing. Something's up, something's coming.
I would omit a great deal of the first paragraph because it's so many details I don't get properly drawn in. How about, "After shoehorning himself into the space along the curb, Graham crossed behind the Customs House and found the address - a dingy five-story building..."?
I love your descriptions.
The first couple of sentences are passive voice. If you really like them, try switching to a more active voice.
Those first two sentences are not passive voice. I'm puzzling even as to how to make that first one passive.
The sign above Graham's car experienced an attempt by him to decipher it after he had shoehorned himself into the space along the curb.
Thanks for the comments.
I'm afraid I cheated a bit here; this is a chapter opening from the middle of the manuscript, so I was aiming more for place and mood rather than simply trying to draw the reader in with "the business" as Dave sighs about.
Perhaps not strict passive voice, but sticking with 'ing' verbs is passive. 'shoehorning', 'deciphering', 'burning'. Throw in some 'was' and the action is not happening right now.
It does set a mood and you can do that in the middle of a book. You can even do it on the first page. I've read novels that have moody openings. The big problem is that the rest of the story is brilliant.
If you want to read a truly, amazingly, totally awful opening, try "The Name of the Rose" by U Eco. The opening is so dry and clinical. But the language is loaded for bear hunting and 100 pages later we can't put the book down.
I can make a good case that each chapter should have as exciting and engaging an opening as the first chapter.
And I could make a case that every chapter should end with a snappy round up sentence.
I'm so late to the party here that the host has already been round with the hoover.
So - I know this is a chapter opening.
I'm liking this on the whole but there are some phrases you could iron out to make it run smoother.
'...tried deciphering the sign above his car to determine...' is a bit heavy on technical 'd' words - what about 'read the sign above the car to work out'? 'Which Tuesday...' takes care of the deciphering.
I'm guessing the street performer will go home without anything in his pocket - sounds like he's making an absolute racket. I don't know whether this line is good or bad. Fuzzy barking echoes or echoing fuzzy barks? It's a bit OTT and I'm not sure it works. Or does it? I'm definitely getting Irritating Old Git With Out Of Tune Sax. If that's the sort of thing you're after then it works.
The dirty paperback image, I like.
'Seemed sliced out of time' is weak.
If you can unhook the 'felt' from the 'listed' in the plastic letters sentence, it would read better.
Also, if the letters are plastic, then surely they would fall to a Scrabble piece jumble. Mention of soup adds unecessary gloop - and, no doubt, e-numbers.
"not strictly" passive voice? It's not at all passive voice. That's a term with a particular meaning in grammar and shouldn't be applied ad hoc to writing you think is weak.
Both sentences are in active voice.
I would argue further about there being nothing passive about "was" or "ing" constructions--"by the time she got back inside the house, the dog was already tearing the rag doll into tiny little pieces"--but we've had that argument here before.
So -ing verbs are out now? Is somone keeping track of these, So far I have: adverbs, adjectives, 'was', 'that', more than 2 similes, but I know I'm missing some.
This opening brings to mind a recent post on edit torrent, which showed how to use modifiers to emphasis different parts of a sentence. I found it one of those aha! posts and I think it covers the problem I had with these lines (the wrong details in the wrong place). Have a look and see if it works for you too http://edittorrent.blogspot.com/2008/03/redlines-five-description-itis.html
And while I'm pointing that way, http://edittorrent.blogspot.com/2008/03/redlines-five-passive-voice.html might be of use to some people too.
If someone hasn't started Perfect Circle yet, and plans to read it by Monday, you may volunteer to count the similes. Heck, there are four on the last page, and it has only 11 lines.
I loved the similes in Perfect Circle.
Somehow, reading them, I felt right at home.
Well, that's that then, EE--it'll never get published!
OK. So I was being lazy and just used 'passive voice' for its meaning in my own head and not the literal sense of the term. (I did a stint in legal writing in law school and do understand the literal meaning of passive voice)
What I'm trying to say here is that, with 'was' and 'ing', this slips closer to telling rather than showing when making it more immediate can pull it firmly back into showing. It's not like the action happened so long ago that it can't easily be more immediate.
But it's a stylistic choice and I'm only making suggestions.
Seems most of the suggestions were to ditch this part completely anyway.
Unfortunately that's how these things start. We know what we mean but that doesn't everyone else reading it does and you know what other people are like ;) At least when we start seeing "You can't use -ing because it's passive voice" being repeated all over writing forums we'll know where it started! :)
That aside, I'm not sure I agree. Sometimes the -ing + was format is needed to show an action in progress.
E.g. "Fred sat on the couch." could mean the right at the moment Fred performed the action of sitting on the couch, whereas "Fred was sitting on the couch" means Fred was already sitting and is still sitting.
So I agree in that it refers to an action that has already happening but it also refers at actions that are currently is happening and possibly continuing to happen. It's a distinction that sometimes needs to be made. Used to often, sure it leads to weak writing.
If we look at these lines, the pavement was burning his feet prior to and at the time of the observation but now (presumably) he's doing something to stop it. "The pavement burnt his feet" is more immediate but has more of an hint of passing observation than something to be dealt with. I think it's a valid structure in this case.
If someone hasn't started Perfect Circle yet...
Just finished it.
I liked Stewart's use of simile's in Perfect Circle - they fit the voice of the narrator well and shaped the imagery of the story. I hated Jodi Picoult's use of similes in Nineteen Minutes where they clunked out and called attention to themselves.
Just personal opinion, of course. ymmv.
Well here's my thoughts on this passive thing, it's all about--
Nah, I can't be bothered. I'll just sit here and watch.
Regarding the 'phantom passive' voice here, Xenith makes the very argument I did (with myself) about 'the pavement was burning' vs. 'the pavement burnt.' I try to be fairly concientious when it comes to over-use of 'to be' verbs in my writing -- they all get cirlced in my first drafts -- but that's not to say i feel i can or should expunge every 'was' in my writing.
These things tend to become a tempest in a teapot.
WO - I may just cut that first sentence after 'sign above his car.' I think it would remain fairly obvious WHY he's checking the sign. And the 'to determine his risk' is clunky. I actually thought about Scrabble pieces vs. alphabet soup, but made the decision mostly because I think of Scrabble tiles as square, whereas the soup letters (pre-boiling) are more like those pressed on letters. But I missed the goopey association. Good point.
Again, thanks to everyone for taking the time to comment.
I freakin' love it when Brits say "I can't be bothered."
How about "I can't be arsed", Robin?
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